'Where's Brian?' Is the (Bay) Watch Word : Pop music: The elusive Beach Boy is a no-show for shoot; the question is will he be at the Cerritos Center tonight.

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It should have been a moment of triumph for the Beach Boys, dropped from their record label but now taking center stage on one of the most popular television shows in the world, "Baywatch."

On the Santa Monica Pier, David Hasselhoff was praising the Hawthorne-spawned combo for virtually inventing the imaginary beach realm that "Baywatch" celebrates with babes, hunks and flaky New Age philosophizing. Gushed "Baywatch" regular Alexandra Paul: "They're the ultimate California band, and we're the ultimate California show!"

The Boys were performing in a "Baywatch" episode, and talk was that they even might do the theme song for the soon-to-be-spun-off "Baywatch Nights." To top it off, the summit by the sand came wrapped in a philanthropic premise: The band's "Baywatch" appearance had been written into the script as a benefit for the Surfrider Foundation, a real-world organization of ecologically minded surfers.

And so, it was with a predictable shrug that the assembled Beach Boys faced the first question that brought so many in the media to the shoot:

"Where's Brian?"

For although it has been 30 years since Brian Wilson stopped touring with his band mates, the brilliant, fragile, tragic songwriter behind the Beach Boys sound remains the group's biggest draw. Realizing this, the band's press agents--who in their promotional literature continue to list Brian as an active Beach Boy--had promised that the elusive Wilson would appear. The claim, made often in the past three decades, seemed plausible this time because Brian had shown up to film some "Baywatch" segments with his band mates earlier in the year.

There was, however, no Brian Wilson to be found, and the assembled crowds were not impressed by the substitute, David Marks, a guitarist who had played on a few early Beach Boy records.

"Brian is an enigma, a leprechaun," said rhythm guitarist Al Jardine. "I had a dream in which the four of us are together in a phone booth--and Brian's on the other side of the street, looking on at us from a distance. You could say he's a bit reclusive."

Bruce Johnston, the keyboard player who replaced Wilson on stage in 1965, was more blunt. When a press agent tried to explain away Brian's absence as a mere scheduling mix-up, Johnston interjected.

"No, that's not true. I called his management three weeks ago to tell him about today. I made sure Brian got the message. I'll bet Brian had 10,000 reasons to stay home, but a scheduling conflict isn't one of them."

Johnston said that even at the earlier "Baywatch" shoot, which features Wilson and the other Beach Boys frolicking in the surf, "Brian was distant, a little scared. He really wasn't there. He's been really busy trying to come back from where he's been."

Where that is exactly has long been the subject of speculation. After 1966's landmark "Pet Sounds" album, Wilson entered an emotional abyss marked by creative frustrations and drug abuse. Battling addictions, weight problems, psychological hurdles and a manipulative conservator, Wilson nonetheless sometimes could appear with surprising lucidity and creative spark.

His 1988 solo album included the well-received song "Love and Mercy," and a recent marriage appears to have raised his confidence and his spirits. The possibility of collaboration with his band mates also seemed to have improved with the resolution of singer Mike Love's lawsuit against Wilson over songwriting credits and royalties.

Love, who says he remains close to his cousin Wilson despite the legal wrangling, took the absence in stride. "He's the world's most famous no-show," Love said.

Nonetheless, he insisted that chances are good that Wilson will appear with the band at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, tonight through Saturday.

Yet for all the talk of Wilson as phantom Beach Boy, it was the rest of the group that snubbed Brian when a new documentary of his life was given a gala opening in Hollywood last week.

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Dressed all in black, Wilson came to the Directors Guild of America for the showing of "Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." The 45-minute black and white film, directed by record producer Don Was, will air on the Disney Channel on Aug. 27.

It features Wilson performing many of his hit songs, including "In My Room," "God Only Knows" and "Do It Again," sometimes accompanied by his mother Audree, his singing daughters Carnie and Wendy and his brother Carl, an original Beach Boy who still performs with the group.

While avoiding some details of Wilson's life, the film does aim to plumb the links between his problems and his creativity. Wilson himself emerges as a strangely childlike man who can express himself fully only through music.

"Brian's not saying that he's got no problems, that he's a regular cat," said Was, who has produced recent records by the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt. Despite those problems, Was said, the film shows Wilson's "incredible strength, incredible drive."

Wendy Wilson said most people "only see the freakish side of my dad." She hopes the film will show his "human side, the funny, wonderful person he is."

The self-effacing songwriter was more modest in his expectations. "This film will show people that one side of my face gets contorted when I talk," Wilson told The Times.

Carl Wilson appears in the documentary, as do musicians ranging from David Crosby and Tom Petty to John Cale of the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, all giving praise to Wilson's genius. Conspicuously absent are Jardine, Johnston and Love.

Director Was said the other Beach Boys didn't cooperate because of the legal dispute between Wilson and Love. With that behind them, Was said he hopes to produce an album featuring a reunited band.

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But a source close to Wilson's camp dismissed such talk, saying the film, which focuses on Wilson's intensely personal songwriting technique, was partly an effort to refute a jury verdict granting Love co-authorship of many of the Beach Boys songs. Despite the public rapprochement, Wilson is unlikely to work closely with the Beach Boys again, either in the studio or at a concert, the source said.

However, whether Wilson appears in person at this weekend's shows may be beside the point. As Johnston said, whenever the Beach Boys play, "Brian shows up in the music."

* The Beach Boys play tonight through Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. Show time: 8 p.m. (310) 916-8500.

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